A father, his sons, fishing rods – and a freeway overpass: Fishermen are still out in D.C.’s urban streams despite risks
| By David Schultz |
Because Jinwon Lee has the day off from work, and because his two sons are on spring break, and because the weather is beautiful, Lee has taken his sons to his favorite spot for fishing.
They’re sitting on the side of an embankment underneath a three-lane highway. They have their rods cast into Four Mile Run, an urban stream in Northern Virginia that feeds directly into the Potomac River.
“We love this place,” Lee says, as his sons, George, 11, and Hyunwook, 8, stare at the water for any signs of movement. Lee emigrated to the U.S. six years ago from South Korea and now works at a post office in his home of Falls Church, Va.
For bait, the Lees are using a mixture of sweet corn and Maseca, a Mexican brand of masa cornmeal sold in most grocery stores in this area. Jinwon Lee has his own black leather rod-carrying case with his name written on it in Korean.
“Hey, careful!” he exclaims as his boys play and giggle on the steep embankment.
Just upstream, about a couple hundred yards, is the Arlington County Water Pollution Control Plant, which treats 30 million gallons of wastewater every day and which dumps its treated effluent into Four Mile Run. Days before the Lee’s fishing expedition, Arlington County issued an advisory warning humans and pets to avoid contact with the stream’s waters after a sewage pipe overflowed a few miles north of where the Lee’s are currently fishing.
“I never eat the fish,” Lee says, a bit cagily. “Some guys bring the fish home and eat. But I don’t like that.”
A few minutes later, Lee catches a carp the size of his forearm. “This guy tastes really good,” he says.
Wait – didn’t he just say he never eats the fish?
“Yeah, I don’t eat it. We just eat this guy. Very good!”
Fishing is the hobby of many, but in urban streams it carries some risks that aren’t always obvious. Robert Buchanan, a former chief scientist at the Food and Drug Administration and currently the director at the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland, says that fish caught in urban streams can contain “any number of different contaminates. … The big issue here is what’s being dumped into the water and what grows in the water.”
Depending on where you are, Buchanan says, the fish you catch may contain toxic chemicals, microbiological agents – also known as fecal waste – or parasites. And he says, often, there’s no way to tell with the naked eye.
“If a fish has gross malformations or open sores you shouldn’t eat it,” Buchanan says. “But [contamination] may not always be the problem you think it is.”
Buchanan says a fish might not be clean if it doesn’t give you immediate, acute problems. There’s also the issue of what he calls “bioaccumulation. It might be excess levels of lead, cadmium, pesticides, pollutants.”
Buchanan says this is why larger fish pose the greatest risk of contamination because not only do pollutants collect in their bodies, but the larger fish eat smaller fish whose bodies also contain harmful pollutants.
However, Buchanan says the urban streams of today are head and shoulders ahead of where they were as recently as 30 years ago – or as far back as 300 years ago.
“In colonial times, I’m not sure I’d want to drink any of the water,” he says. “There was no sewage treatment. There were no clean-up efforts until after World War II. … That was the first realization you could do permanent damage to the environment.”
But now, after decades of effort and countless dollars spent, urban streams like the Potomac River and its tributary, Four Mile Run, are cleaner than they’ve been in decades – though still not entirely clean. Arlington County, for example, continually issues the kinds of advisories it issued earlier this month for Four Mile Run, as the pipes in its aging sewage system are prone to bursting.
But despite this, Buchanan says fishing in urban streams such as Four Mile Run poses less of a risk than fishing in many developing countries, where pollution regulations haven’t caught up with the furious pace of industrial development. “The water supply here in the U.S. isn’t perfect, but it’s not bad,” he says.
Buchanan also suggests some surprisingly simple things public health officials can do to clean up urban waterways while also preventing people from recreating in areas that are unsafe.
“I have a house along the New Jersey beach,” Buchanan says. “On each of the storm drains there’s a little reminder that says do not dump material down here because it will wind up in the bay. It keeps people from throwing oil and dog droppings down them.”
In the meantime, Buchanan says it’s probably not a good idea to take that that Four Mile Run carp home and fry it up.
“People need to be reminded [not to pollute],” he says, “but they also need to be warned that you shouldn’t always eat what’s coming out of the water.”